NASHVILLE — Patrik Laine’s going to have a tough sell job on this one.
The Winnipeg Jets forward said Monday he much prefers his overall level of play this month to his November performance last year when he blew the NHL’s collective mind with his lavish goal-scoring.
Laine has one goal in seven games thus far, a power-play tally and the game-opener late in the first period of Winnipeg’s 3-2 overtime victory over the visiting Dallas Stars Nov. 10.
Turn back the clock exactly a year ago to the day and 21-year-old Finn had five goals in the first six games of the month and would dazzle with 13 more over the next 10 days to finish with a stupefying 18 in a dozen contests. He was the first player to rifle 18 goals in a calendar month since Pavel Bure of the Vancouver Canucks, who notched 19 in March 1994.
And Laine’s November to remember included a five-goal outburst against the St. Louis Blues and hat-tricks against the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Global Series in Helsinki and, later, the Vancouver Canucks.
Scoring pretty much at will may have put a little Vaseline on the lens for some fans who were too busy high-fiving friends, family and perfect strangers to notice some shoddy play away from the puck and a host of irresponsible decisions in his own end.
Even though he put 18 behind opposing goaltenders, he finished the month at minus-one.
“That month, that’s the kind of stuff I am capable of doing when everything’s going well as a shooter. But I don’t feel like I was playing great hockey. Pucks were going in every time I shot but I don’t know what else I was doing,” he said Monday after practice at Bridgestone Arena.
He finished with 30 goals last season but was a team-worst minus-24.
“Now, I feel like I’m a better player but just not scoring. I would take this instead of scoring and not playing well,” he said.
“The shot is still there. I’ve just got to find it. And that’s going to help me more in the future — that I’m going to be more of an all-around player compared to if I were scoring every single night and being a liability out there. Minus-three every night and score 60? Who cares.”
Winnipeg (12-8-1) is gunning for its fifth consecutive win on the road Tuesday night in a battle with the Nashville Predators (9-7-3). Game time is 7 p.m. The Jets won twice in Florida to begin a nine-day southern swing and wrap up in Dallas against the Stars Thursday night.
Laine assumes his usual place on the right side of centre Mark Scheifele, while Kyle Connor plays left wing when the Jets and Predators face off for the first time this year. The trio was created after Bryan Little suffered a head injury on Nov. 5, forcing head coach Paul Maurice to do some major juggling. Scheifele and his longtime winger Blake Wheeler were split up — the captain sliding into Little’s second-line centre slot — and Laine moved up a rung.
Goal-scoring hasn’t kept him there — he’s stuck at one tally in 14 games and has just four on the season. But the eye test suggests the 6-5, 206-pound forward has been more engaged physically; he’s been harder on pucks and more reliable moving them up the boards in his own end and he’s been showing greater responsibility in his defensive-zone coverage.
Puck control along the wall wasn’t part of his trade as an offensive threat in Finland. He’d catch passes on the fly and have room to move, scoring piles of his goals on the rush.
Not so easy in the NHL, said Laine, who’s an even player through 19 games (he missed two due to injury).
“It’s just a different game. There might be one or two times in the Finnish league where you get a (puck rimmed around the boards to you). You might get zero. You don’t have to throw the puck away because you have so much time,” said the second-overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. “Here, you might get 10, easily… once every shift.
“Playing over there and then playing here as an 18-year-old, those are the skills you don’t really work on because you don’t have to. So, I’ve been trying to work on those skills every day since I came here 3 1/2 years ago and I feel like I’m still getting better every day and still a lot of things to work on.
“Getting all the pucks out, those small details, those are really important. Those are the small things those guys in here appreciate that maybe people who watch the game don’t see,” added Laine.
“So, that’s kind of my new, well not new, but my mindset this year. I guess that’s growing up. And now as an ‘old guy’ I have a different outlook.”
He’s also demonstrated good vision and slick passing, while leading the team with 14 assists. In Sunrise, Fla., Thursday night he had three helpers, including a back-door beauty to Scheifele for that snapped a 2-2 tie in an eventual 4-3 triumph.
According to Scheifele, becoming a bona fide NHL star means checking off a long list of boxes game in and game out.
And he’s had a front-row seat to watch Laine’s strides forward as a more complete player.
“Since me and (Connor) and Patty have played together, the biggest thing I’ve seen is he’s trying to go to the right areas. He’s not just always in a shooting position, he’s trying to get net front, he’s trying to play with it below the goal line. Every guy has to get a turn driving the net, every guy has to take a turn being the shooter. It’s not always set up with one guy scoring all the goals in this league,” he said.
“It’s way too hard to be one-dimensional. You gotta do it all, you gotta take hits, you need to make hits, you gotta have a good stick, you have to be able to play with the puck in all areas of the ice, and that’s what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to round out his game.”
Maurice said he’s counted on Scheifele to be a mentor of sorts in terms of talking strategy and providing positive feedback to both his talented young wingers. He’s been satisfied with the hard work Laine’s put in to cut down on his mistakes.
“There is an awareness and a commitment by Patrik to improve other parts of the game. When you have a shot like that and you have so much success, there isn’t really a need to develop other parts of your game. But a bunch of things have changed,” Maurice said.
“Right now he’s playing with Mark, our most productive centre, and a lot of times playing against the other teams’ best, so that’s a whole different world.
“He’s made a commitment to it and he knows it, but it’s not going to be a straight line to becoming a Selke Award winner (as the league’s top defensive forward). There’s lots of work to do.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
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